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February 2016

So Long Sicily

There's a lot to look back on as I wait in Istanbul to board my flight back to the US. I was in Sicily for 8 days and I covered a lot of ground; not the full 400 K loop I had originally aimed for but about 200 Kilometers running around, through, and between some of Sicily's most important wine regions. 

Considering I ran all over mount Etna and through both Ragusa and Vittoria until I injured my left Achilles and couldn't run any more, I feel like I solidly achieved my goal of pushing my limits and getting as deep an experience of wine making on Etna and in Vittoria as I possibly could given the time I had. I'll add lots more photos once I have access to a computer again but here's a quick run down:

Day 1 I arrived, ran out of the airport, couldn't make my GPS work and ended up some where lost west of Catania where a nice Italian lady basically told me "you can't get there from here" when it was too dark to run I took a cab to Nicolosi.

Day 2. I got up early and started running in the direction I thought is should go. Getting out of town proved tricky but the road running up over the mountain, looking out at the Mediterranean was incredible. Eventually, 30+ miles later and after a bonus run up Etna I made it to Solicchiata, met up with Frank, toured his winery, tasted all his amphora wines, and had dinner.

Day 3. I ran up to Passopisciaro and got to see a lot more of the north end of the valley in the process. Vincenzo, the manager, took me all over their vineyards, told me more about Etna's unique climate, and then I had lunch with Frank and Vincenzo and we drank all kinds of crazy wines. This was when Frank convinced me to change my plans and spend more time on Etna instead of running south through central Sicily. Afterwards Frank and I met the owners of Clos Mugador back at his winery for another tour and then dinner.

Day 4. I ran north west through Passopisciaro and Randazzo to see more mountain. I ran back and had time to run back partway up Etna to hunt for the Barbabechi vineyard before I caught a bus down to Catania. 

Day 5. It didn't look like there was good direct bus service to Vittoria so I caught a bus to Ragusa and then ran to Vittoria. The land was so different from Etna and there was lots of livestock. Google maps took me through some crazy washed out trails over the mountains and I tangled with more dogs in the hills. I made it to Vittoria and discovered it was a very pedestrian unfriendly place. But I had pizza at a bar and drank a bottle of Occhipinti Il Frappato. It was my birthday. 


Day 6. I started running at about 8 am and managed to cover about 20 miles looing around Vittoria before my noon appointment with Arriana Occhipinti. So many dogs! Arriana was great. She had food poisoning but once we started tasting wines from the tanks she woke began to feel better. We talked a lot and cooked a nice lunch with Damiano. I was quite impressed with her relaxed determination. Then she drove me over to COS so I could check that winery out as well and meet her uncle Giusto. COS was also great and their winery and amphora and passion was impressive. This was also when my left ankle stopped working. 

Day 7. When I woke up it was apparent that I had done something to my left Achilles and that my running was over for this trip. I eventually made it back to Catania by bus and started exploring the city. 

Day 8. I walked nearly 20 miles in an attempt to see everything in Catania. More pictures to come of the Elephant fountain, Bellini gardens, impressive out door cafés, and the Duomo. 



This was an abandoned road I ran down on the way into Vittoria. It got so much worse. The town of Vittoria itself wasn't so pedestrian friendly.



Looking out over the Cellini gardens in central Catania

Arriana Occhipinti's Winery

Arriana works pretty exclusively in cement tanks. Both because it's totally neutral and gentle on the wine but also because it's easy to walk around on top, look in, do pump overs, and etc.  

The bottom picture is from down in her cellar. That's a root growing through the limestone on the wall. The vineyards in vittoria have just about 40 centimeters of sandy soil and then below that it's all limestone. Arriana doesn't irrigate so the vines roots have to go very deep to find water. It's not visible in this picture buy there were also visible salt deposits from when this was the ocean floor millions of years ago. Some of that saltiness definitely comes through in the wines. 

Arriana bought this property as a mostly abandoned farm 4 years ago and immediately set about building a new cellar to expand her wine making. She's only just now starting on the house that he lives in; the definitely took top priority.



Visiting Arriana Occhipinti

Today I went for an 18 mile run and then visited Arriana Occhipinti at Noon. 


I couldn't find direct bus service from Catania into Vittoria and I wanted to run more anyway, so I took the bus from Catania to Ragusa and then ran to Vittoria.  There was a chain of steep hills I had to cross and this was the view coming down into Vittoria.


The road up into the hills was beautiful but it eventually turned into a washed out and abandoned road.  Here's the view of part of it that went through some abandoned buildings.  After this it went through some farms and odd little developments before my route turned into a mountain bike trail through some back yards and then into the woods and down into a ravine where I could hear people shooting shot guns.  After dealing with some more guns and dogs I managed to make it out of the ravine in one piece and find a really odd hotel that had a pair of fake castle towers on it.  It was called "le due torre" or in English "the two towers".  Everything inside was shag carpeted.  It was odd.  


The next morning I went for a 20 ish mile run around Vittoria.  This is the entrance to the small vineyard that Arriana Occhipinti originally started out making wine from. 


Arriana's vineyards are about 10K from the coast and all the land had been sea floor millions of years ago.  Here you can see the limestone based soil that dominates the vineyards.  These were 40 ish year old Frappato vines.  The flowers are a cover crop that she intentionally seeds the vineyards with and then in early summer sometime she plows them into the ground to naturally fertilize. 


Here's a part of the vineyard that was a bit sandier.  Arriana Occhipinti had been planting this plot the year before and earlier in the day had been going through checking on all the young vines.  They're still not grown enough to produce grapes, she was just looking through to make sure they were doing ok.


This was anothe good view looking down the gentle hill that her vineyard is one.  Most of the land has a couple meters of sandy soil and then there's limestone subsoil below that, but down in the distance you can see a spot where for some reason the limestone pushed up to the soil and makes the vineyard look white.


Here's Arriana's winery.  She had bought this old farm about 4 years ago because she needed a larger winery and she was offered a great deal on it, but she had to build all this completely from scratch.  Those are big cement tanks all lined up.  Arriana likes them because they 1. give no flavor to the wine and 2. you can walk along the top of them, open the hatches, and really easily monitor what's happening inside.  She ferments her wines with the natural yeast on the skins and prefers to just press the grapes, and let them start fermenting with the yeast that was there instead of doing something like harvesting some grapes a week early and making a starter of already naturally fermented wine to kick off the larger fermentation.  She adds a bit of sulfur right at the start of the fermentation to help prevent oxidization, but that's it.


Very easy to walk around on top of as you can see.


This is the wall of her cave where she had all her barrels aging.  It's just the raw limestone sub soil and you can actually see a little root from something poking through.  The limestone subsoil makes the vines really dig deep for water and limits yields, but also does do a good job of holding water deep down so that the vines can get water over the hot summer.


After looking at everything we sat outside on the grass in the sun so that I could massage my messed up Achilles and we talked about what she's done.  I do not put my self on anywhere near the level of what she's accomplished, but I have started a couple businesses and dealt with all the stresses that come with that.  I asked about where she got the imagination to build a world class winery like this in a place that isn't really know for wine, how hard it was, and what else she wanted to do.  She's owned this farm for about 4 years and started by building the new winery and is just now starting to work on the house so that it's more comfortable for her to live in.  Business has to come first....  She told me that at this point she was happy and didn't have plans for more new projects.  Maybe she doesn't have concrete plans right now but sitting there with her talking and tasting wines, she had so much energy even though she had food poisoning, I'm sure that she'll launch into something else, something new.  I don't think she can stop herself.


Starting a new business making brilliant natural wines and then exporting them all over the world in a very patriarchal place that isn't really known for any of that and that's kind of economically depressed is pretty incredible.  There were plenty of things that hadn't gone the way she wanted.  She told me about how she tried to create a program to bring in kids from the local high school and teach them all about making and marketing wine.  The program lasted 1 week because the parents of the children recoiled at the idea of any of their kids working as farmers and pulled them all out of it.   


 After talking we went in and made lunch.  She and her assistant Damiano made a killer traditional Sicilian lunch of pasta with olives, fresh herbs, sauteed broccoli, and a salad of mozzarella and tomatoes.  It was a beautiful space that had been an ancient winery and still had open stone pits in the floor where the grapes had been fermented into wine.


This was another view up the hill over some more Frappato and cover flowers.  After meeting with me Arriana was meeting with officials from the local government to petition them to clean up some of the piles of trash along the road.  She's become president of the local wine makers association so she's trying to promote the area and make it easier and more attractive for people to come and visit.  It was clear that Arriana Occhipinti just does not stop.   

How Frank Cornelissen makes wine

I visited Frank Cornelissen at his winery for the first time on the evening of the day I arrived in Solicchiata. It was my first full day in Sicily and I was a little rough from the 50+ Kilometre run up around Etna but after lying on my back with my legs up in the air and the mountain in the background, plus a shower, I felt pretty good.

There's a lot of great pictures below and you should look through them, but I've decided to lead with my conclusion after seeing Frank's winery and spending a couple days with him. Here it is.

Frank is head over heels in love with Mount Etna. He said at one point that he hopes he dies in the Barbabechi vineyard. It's that total love of the place that drives him. He's completely and utterly committed to making wines that express that place, or each different unique spot on Etna as cleanly and honestly as possible. He loves Etna and for him making wine is a way to demonstrate that. Even more than that, making incredible wines that taste like the mountain allows him to viscerally share with people around the world how amazing Etna is. His strict avoidance of sulfur or engineered yeasts or any other additives is because he wants to exclusively have the mountain speaking through his wines. Think of each bottle of his wine as a little love letter from Frank trying to share with you how much he loves this mountain and why he beleives it's a wine terroir with potential on a level with Burgundy.


This was the view I had while I was lying on my back putting my feet up


Frank doesn't use stainless steel for any of the vessels that his wines rest in. He feels it's too hard and a sharp thermal conductor and he doesn't like what it does to the wine's tastes. Right here he's pulling a sample from a tank of Munjebel Bianco. This is made from food grade epoxy and Frank would demonstrate by having me put my hands on a piece of stainless steel and then on one of the epoxy tanks and the difference is pretty dramatic.

As nonchalant as most of the natural wine makers I admire seem, I'd already guessed that in order to ferment naturally and not use sulfur in the wines you have to be extremely clean and have a very high level of attention to detail in the winery. Frank's winery was the cleanest I've ever seen. He has air filters ionizing all the air that comes in, everything is sprayed down with an alcohol and citric acid solution every time it is used. Before any wine is handled or moved he cleans the winery with ozone to kill any possible brettanomyces, TBA, TCA, or other possible bacteria. The bottling line is in a sealed container that gets filled with argon or nitrogen (depending on if he thinks the wine needs exposure to a bit of oxygen to settle it) and he has ultra violet lights shining on it to kill any possible rogue bacteria. I was really impressed at the lengths that Frank gone to in order to make sure that he had no possible contamination.


Along with Passopisciaro Frank is pushing for more recognition of Etna's many different growing locations for wine that all have very different temperatures, exposure to the sun, drainage, etc. On Etna they're called Contradas. This is a map of their locations around north Etna.


After visiting Passopisciaro Vincenzo came and had lunch with Frank and I at Cave Ox. Vincenzo is born and raised in the town and has experience and intuitive knowledge of north Etna that you can't really get any other way. It was amazing to listen to him and Frank discuss the mountain and the good and bad things about the rise of Etna's image. Look at those wines we drank too! Francheti! All those Contradas!


Volcanic rocks in the Porcaria vineyard. These are literally everywhere. The soil is completely full of them. They hold water, but they're heavy and dense. They constantly roll into the street. You really just can't get away from them!


Porcaria is one of Vincenzo's favorite vineyards. He thinks that long ago there may have been a river over it because there are some different non volcanic rocks in the center of it and it's pretty unusually flat. Frank also makes wine from here but he gets grapes from some of the edges that are rockier and terraced.


Any time you start working the soil on Etna you end up having to pull masses of those volcanic rocks out of the ground in order to do anything. Here's a pile that was just along the road side up on the way to Passopisciaro.


This is Frank spraying down around the amphora after we'd tasted from them to clean any possible contamination. Those are all 400 clay amphora set in the ground.

A lot of the 2015s were just really done fermenting and settled enough to taste when I visited so Frank hadn't even tasted them since they're transfer into their amphora to rest. We got really into it and tasted pretty much everything. There was so much variation! All were wines from north Etna, from within about 10K of each other, all made from Nerello Mascalese, but they tasted so different! Some vineyards like Chiusa Spagnolo were big and dense and earthy and then others like the Zocco Nero vineyard were intense and racy with beautiful raspberry fruit! The land on Etna is so crazy that traveling half a kilometer can mean 100 meters of elevation change, 20 minutes more sun per day, and lower temperatures at night. No wonder each spot makes totally different tasting wines and I could never figure Nerello out.


One of the ionizing air purifiers cleaning all the air coming into the winery.


Here's a better view of all the amphora set into the floor of the aging room.


The view down into one of the 400 L amphora.


Tasting the Zocco Nero Vineyard out of the amphora. This was one of my favorites. It was very clean and intense and expressive. There were very vivid strawberry and raspberry flavors to it.


Frank has switched to this new type of synthetic cork that's constructed to form a perfect seal with the glass neck of the bottle but also let in just the right amount of air into the bottle for aging. This way there are no corked bottles and Frank knows exactly how much exposure to oxygen each bottle will get. Again it's him trying to get rid of any other variables or ways that his wine making could actively change the way the wine tastes. He's trying to make the absolutely purest expression of each vineyard and vines. He and his wine making is conspicuous in their absence.


The epoxy fermenters have lids that actually slide down inside the tank to adjust to whatever the volume of liquid is currently inside and try to keep any air from touching the wine. Those are currently full of Susucaru


Frank's not done yet either! This is a large old farm house that Frank had just bought in Solicchiata. He said it would take a few years of construction, but he's going to rebuild it and construct a whole new winery for himself underneath it!

Arrival in Sicily

My first day or so in Sicily didn't teach me much. I was excited to exit the plane and see Etna right up ahead in the distance, but I quickly discovered that there is no pedestrian exit from the airport. I don't know how I got out, but it involved an ancient one car wide tunnel, abandoned industrial areas, an Italian ghetto, and a lot of dead ends. I learned that side walks just aren't Italian and that Sicily has a lot of ornery wild dogs: Randazzu I think. Finally today I made it to Solicchiata up above Etna and visited Frabk Cornelissen. More on his domain later.